Two Actors Brought Down the Communist Curtain
President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II performed the welcome task of eliminating communism as a superpower from the Western world. The American actor elected president of the United States of America and the Polish actor elected pope now are widely known to have become the pair of world leaders who are most responsible for assisting in the demolition of the superpower status of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR), heralding the demise of communism in Eastern Europe.
"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
—President Ronald Reagan
Pope John Paul II
A Renaissance Man: Karol Wojtyla
John Paul II experienced a lifetime of accomplishment and an extended papacy. Born Karol Wojtyla, he was called to a monastic life dedicated to God and the spiritual life. In addition to serving as spiritual leader of the Catholic church, he was a poet, a professor, and a politician. This pope was a true renaissance man.
In addition to his books on theology, Pope John Paul II also published a book of poetry The Place Within: The Poetry of Pope John Paul II. Included in this volume are poems from his earlier years. His poem titled "The Quarry" features the poignant line: "But the man has taken with him the world's inner structure ,where the greater the anger, the higher the explosion of love." While the world can take delight in his talents as actor, poet, and professor, it must surely remain grateful for his political achievements as well as his spiritual leadership.
Communist Symbol Hammer & Sickle
Before being elected to the papacy, this pope had suffered from communist domination of his native Poland for thirty years. The communist regime had closed down his university, Jagiellonian University in Krakow, where he was studying drama. He was forced to work in a quarry and later in a chemical factory or face deportation from his native Poland to Germany.
Even worse was the suppression of the Catholic church in Poland under the communist regime. After acknowledging his call to a religious life, the future pope was forced to study secretly at a seminary that would not have been tolerated by the communist government. The large seminary had been closed. So this pope experienced first-hand totalitarian oppression from the communist regime. However, as a religious, he struggled spiritually and peacefully against that regime. More accurately, his kind of fighting should be defined differently— instead of battling against tyranny, he struggled for freedom.
This pope understood that the suppression of Catholicism in Poland was a violation of human rights; therefore, he worked hard to get the rights of religious freedom restored in his native country.
Instead of complaining for more church buildings, he strived to get religion taught in the schools; instead of grumbling about a closed press, he labored to get access to the media without censorship. He also remained adamant about human rights, about which he talked quite openly and often.
How did the pope achieve the goal of stamping out the blight of communism as a superpower? According to Lech Walesa, the founder of the Solidarity worker movement in Poland,
The pope started this chain of events that led to the end of communism. Before his pontificate, the world was divided into blocs. Nobody knew how to get rid of communism. He simply said: Don't be afraid, change the image of this land."
The pope gave the people the strength and courage to rise up, protest, and demand their rights. When he told them, “Be not afraid,” they took that command to heart and became fearless. He also continued to aver that Poland’s history was inseparable from the life of Jesus Christ.
In his speeches, the pope continued to emphasize that Christ was always to be the focus of every endeavor. The people's united courage to trust in God and Christ led the rest of the way.
President Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan and the Pope
The unofficial coalition between Reagan and Pope Paul II was not an ordinary alliance. A pope can never condone violence or even countenance a just war for liberation. But President Reagan, as a political leader, was not under the same constraints as the pope; thus, all options were on the table.
During their conversations regarding bringing down the communist regimes, particularly the one in Poland, the pope would always retreat from confrontations that might cause harm to people such as sanctions or war.
However, upon receiving the 1982 message from Cardinal Achille Silvestrini of the Vatican secretariat of state regarding sanctions against Poland’s government after the arrest of thousands of the Solidarity labor movement, Reagan himself felt encouraged and realized that the pope was, indeed, with him in his efforts to achieve freedom for Poland.
President Ronald Reagan summarized the difference between the president and the pope on this issue:
The Vatican recognizes that the U.S. is a great power with global responsibilities. The United States must operate on the political plane and the Holy See does not comment on the political positions taken by governments.
After a visit to the pope 1984, Vice-President George H.W. Bush noted:
I then asked him if he had any advice for us on Poland. He discussed this for some time.… The most important problem is the question of human rights.… The government cannot be changed. Therefore you must influence [Polish leader General Wojciech] Jaruzelski to “have a more human face.”
Good Cop / Bad Cop
Despite the fact that John Paul II did not think that the government could be changed, he always called for “human rights.” He always maintained the distinction between the political and spiritual levels of operation, and though he could not agree to punishment of or war with a nation to bring about change, he understood that they might be necessary.
The unofficial cooperation between the president and the pope might be likened to the "good cop/bad cop" method of dealing with criminals: both leaders had the same goal in mind, but they operated differently.
Because the two former actors, President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, had in mind the restoration of liberty to humanity, their work remained complementary. And upon the dropping of the curtain on communism in Poland, that same curtain came down on the USSR thereafter rather quickly.
- Editors. "Pope John Paul II." biography.com. Updated October 15, 2019
- Lee Edwards. "Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism." Heritage Foundation. January 27, 2010.
- Scott Walker. "When Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan engineered the collapse of communism." Washington Times. October 8, 2020.
- GeorgeWeigel. President Reagan and Pope John Paul II. Catholic Exchange. June 25, 2009.
- Mark Riebling. "Freedom's Men." National Review. April 4, 2005
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes